Words by: Drew Kampion
Photos by: Ron Dahlquist
For a long time, altitude was the big thing in Woody Brown’s life. Now it’s all about attitude — an attitude with plenty of altitude.
Flying from the Mainland to Honolulu and then from Oahu to Maui for my first meeting with Woody Brown in January of this year, I boned up for the interview by reading two very good profiles of the man, which left me intimidated: what was left to say? Ben Marcus’ 1993 portrait in Surfer magazine was a tight, well-crafted, perceptive piece on Woody’s incredible life. And Malcolm Gault-Williams’ 11,000-word encyclopedic story in the Fall 1996 edition of The Surfer’s Journal seemed to include every conceivable aspect of the great surfer’s monumental life. What was left for me to say?
This is what my research told me: Woodbridge Parker Brown was born in New York City on the fifth of January, 1912. His family was blue-blood, prominent on the high-society short list called the New York 400. But Brown was not impressed; rather, he was much more impressed with the young flyers out at Curtis Field on Long Island. That’s where he met aviator Charles Lindbergh in the months before the Lone Eagle’s historic trans-Atlantic solo flight in 1927. Inspired by Lindbergh, Woody learned to fly in a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny,” an obsolete single-engine trainer used by the U.S. Army Air Service in World War I. It was said at the time, “If you can fly a Jenny, you can fly anything.”
After a while, he transitioned to gliders, preferring silence and the rush of wind to the racket of the barnstorming machine. He soon met an elegant Englishwoman with an adventurous spirit that loved (but did not match) his own, and away they went out West to San Diego in 1935.
The young couple lived at La Jolla, where Woody got into bodysurfing, then surfing. He built his own board, a hollow plywood “box” that would float him so he could catch waves at Windansea, Bird Rock, and Pacific Beach. His second board — the “snowshoe” — was more refined. He adapted some of the the aerodynamic wisdom he’d acquired to the much denser medium of water. The outline was traced from the fuselage of his glider; it featured a vee bottom and a small skeg. He did all this in complete ignorance of Tom Blake’s parallel innovations in the Hawaiian Islands.
At nearby Torrey Pines, he was the first to launch a glider from the high bluffs into the vaulting updraft of the onshore breeze. He survived a couple of near-death experiences there and a couple of crashes riding the inland thermals. He became a soaring champion, winning meets around the state and country.
In the midst of “the happiest years of my life,” in 1938, Woody headed off to Wichita Falls, Texas with his “Thunderbird,” a B-100 Baby Albatross kit sailplane designed by soaring pioneer Hawley Bowlus, and blew away existing records for distance, altitude, and duration all in one day on a monumental 263-mile glide to Wichita, Kansas.*
Woody returned to the coast on top of the world, only to be brought crashing to earth when Betty died laboring to deliver their first son. He was devastated, gave the boy over to her family to raise, roamed around aimlessly, gave up flying, and finally headed off to lose himself in the South Pacific. He got as far as Hawaii, and they wouldn’t let him leave. War was imminent and passports and visas weren’t being issued; he was stuck in the Sandwich Isles, depressed and out of his mind with loss. He wandered the islands — Oahu, Maui, Kauai, the Big Island — on foot or bicycle, without direction, a lean, spaced-out haole with nowhere to call home, and the Hawaiians took him in, welcomed him into their homes, and won over his heart.
Not long afterwards, he met and married a Hawaiian woman, a wonderful hotel entertainer named Rachel, and that seemed to ease the pain. They settled on Waikiki, in a small apartment right on the beach above the Waikiki Tavern. “Ma” Brown stayed home with the babies when Woody, a conscientious objector, performed his national service as a government surveyor, a job that took him to Christmas Island, where he got his first ride on an outrigger canoe, a craft so swift and responsive that it inspired him to research, design and build the first modern catamaran based on traditional Polynesian multihulls.**
Throughout these years, Woody continued to surf, gradually ratcheting up to the big waves. In Hawaii he hooked up with the young Hot Curl boys — John Kelly, Fran Heath, George Downing, Rus Takaki, Wally Froiseth, and Rabbit Kekai — and became a fixture at Makaha and on pioneering expeditions to the North Shore. It was there that his most notorious surf session occurred, three days before Christmas of 1943, when he and Dickie Cross paddled out at Sunset Beach on a rising swell. Caught outside, they eventually paddled down to Waimea Bay where they figured they had a chance of getting to the beach. Woody survived, Dickie was never found. The cloud of that event — the killer reputation of the North Shore — remained intact for some 14 years until Waimea was finally “conquered” in November of 1957. By then the Browns had moved to Maui, where Woody supported Ma Brown and his two children by farming. In 1971, Woody apparently came down off the slopes long enough to fly over to Oahu and pilot a glider to a personal altitude record far above 20,000 feet — without oxygen.
Toward the end of that decade, apparently converted to Christianity, Woody authored a book titled The Gospel of Love: A Revelation of the Second Coming, in which he interpreted key sections of the Bible in his own way. Then, in 1986, Ma Brown died, and within the year Woody flew off to the Philippines, where he met and married his third wife, a young woman named Macrene. They now live in Kahului, on Maui, with their son, Woodbridge Parker Brown, Jr., age 15.
That was the outline — the skeleton of 90 years of life, fleshed out with a consistent array of details and anecdotes from the existing literature, as well as David L. Brown’s excellent 1999 documentary, Surfing For Life, which showcases Woody amongst eight or ten other over-65 surfers. Given all the biographical data and imagery, I wasn’t sure what else was left to say about Woody Brown.
* * * * *
The road into Kahului — the Hana Hwy. turning into Ka’ahumanu Ave. — used to be pretty low-key, parts of it downright rural. Now it’s a divided four-lane affair with turning lanes and signals at every corner, large malls left and right. Even the surf and windsurf shops look like malls. It’s easy to get lost and forget where you are, on this is so-called “Outer Island.” Swing right on Kahului Beach Rd. and you curve along the harbor, a natural bay pinched almost shut by two long, low breakwalls. Incredibly, since the opening is scarcely a short city-block long, big swells squeeze through and fan out towards the harbor beach, peaking and spilling over a couple of reefs, producing excellent, fun small-wave surf and a third spot that’s okay for bodyboarders.
Across the road from Kahului Harbor is the Harbor Lights condominium complex, a lone, large building surrounded by heavily-regulated parking lots. A block long and stacked high, its half-dozen rows of identical windows face out on the harbor. Woody Brown’s is three stories up and about 20 across. We stood at his window looking out on the harbor. Although the opening in the jetties is scarcely a short city-block long, big swells squeeze through and fan out towards the harbor beach, peaking and spilling over on several reefs, producing excellent, fun small-wave surf. It was flat, but Woody pointed out the spots anyway. The peak to the west was his favorite.
In his article in Surfer, Ben Marcus had warned that the famous Maui wind whistled though his apartment making the hallway door hard to open, but it’s late afternoon, and it’s calm. Ben also warned me about Pacific hoodlums lurking in stairwells, but all I’d seen was young families and an assortment of good-humored residents. True, the building was sterile and industrial — the kind of functional concrete-shoebox architecture designed to deliver maximum income from minimum investment — but it didn’t feel threatening, and Woody seemed quite relaxed here.
I’d seen his wife Macrene briefly when I’d come in — young, jet-haired, bright-eyed — but she had taken Woody Junior (a handsome 15-year-old) off to town, so that Woody and I could sit on the big leatherette sofa and talk. Woody wore his short-sleeved shirt, mostly unbuttoned and a pair of beach shorts. His rubber thongs were parked by the doorway. His old Ole surfboard leaned against the wall under the big window. Another one — the blue Angulo — was propped under the bedroom window. Otherwise, I saw few visible artifacts of his surfing life. This was partially explained by a small disaster.
“Oh, I had pictures, but I had a tragedy here,” he told me. “I lost my picture album! The worst! You couldn’t buy it — not for any money! I had pictures of the old Curtis Field with the Jennies lined up. Y’see, there was no airplanes but Jennies. They were the old World War trainer, so that’s what everybody had. Well, that was a big biplane with wires and struts, y’know — I guess you’ve seen pictures — well, that’s all it was; that’s what I learned to fly in!”
“What happened to the photo album?” I asked.
“When we moved here, it disappeared, and what I think happened was, y’know when you’re unpacking, you have rubbish all over, and you put the rubbish in a bag or something, and I think the album must’ve been in the bottom of one of the bags, and we put the rubbish in, and never saw it. ’Cause it disappeared.*** A real tragedy, because I had all the pictures from my youth, growing up, my mother and father and everybody. Luckily my girl [his daughter Mary Sue Gannon] swiped some things from out of the album — I’m glad she did now — so we have a few left.”
Over the next two days, listening to Woody, recording eight sides of tape of that wonderful, wise, and emotional voice, all the while his blue eyes sparking with life, I came to realize more and more what the loss of that picture album represented. The only salvation was in the clarity of the man’s mind, which seemed to be related to the purity of his heart.
What I learned about Woody Brown is that he has lived the picaresque life of a Parsifal — the Holy Fool of Arthurian legend, who blundered innocently, nonetheless heroically, into selfless risk after selfless risk. Or maybe in Woody’s case it wasn’t always so selfless; maybe his pursuit of freedom, adventure, and discovery was initially based solidly in the realm of the senses and the ego, but it’s certain that the man’s fate was carrying him along in spite of — not because of — some sense of self. He’s gone way beyond that now. If you were looking for a word to describe this 89-year-old surfer today, “saint” would come to mind.
* * * * *
He was a loner, not a leader, but he led. He wasn’t like other kids. He felt like an alien in high-society New York. Riding the subway to Carpenter School to join the privileged kids, he felt nothing like he knew they felt. He lived in the Gramercy Park house of a successful man who had died prematurely, leaving his son with three women (a step-ladder of generations) and little more than a basement full of books by the Great Agnostic, Robert G. Ingersoll, the boy’s great-uncle. The same Ingersoll who wrote in 1896:
I believe that with infinite arms Nature embraces the all — that there is no interference — no chance — that behind every event are the necessary and countless causes, and that beyond every event will be and must be the necessary and countless effects.
Man must protect himself. He cannot depend upon the supernatural — upon an imaginary father in the skies. He must protect himself by finding the facts in Nature, by developing his brain, to the end that he may overcome the obstructions and take advantage of the forces of Nature.
Is there a God?
I do not know.
Is man immortal?
I do not know.
One thing I do know, and that is, that neither hope, nor fear, belief, nor denial, can change the fact. It is as it is, and it will be as it must be.
We wait and hope.
His family had a home in Rye, about 25 miles outside of the city on the north shore of the Sound. There on a late winter afternoon the boy strolled through a shoreline park with a friend. Noting the rental canoes loaded upside-down on their racks, the loner looked out across the water and suggested a paddle over to Long Island. His friend said, “Sure, okay.”
They found two paddles and set one of the canoes in the water (nothing was locked in those days). It was an Indian canoe, lightweight and fragile — no flotation, no way to bail it out if a hole opened in the hull. They shoved off as the sun lowered in the west. Big boats and small bergs of ice drifted between the paddling boys and the island. It was ten miles across. The night came on with surprising speed. Soon all was blackness and the flickering of distant lights. One twinkling cluster was closer, approaching swiftly — a large boat plowing towards their frail canoe. They aimed to pass across her stern, but when they did they felt a sudden scraping and a jolt. With a start the boy realized — it was a tugboat and it was towing a huge barge — they’d just lurched across a mighty cable that could have sliced their flimsy canoe in half and left them to the icy water and certain death. But they were lucky.
A couple of hours later, they made the far beach. It was deserted. They found a road, hiked a ways, and came upon a restaurant. Famished, they went in. Heads turned, eyes studied them — two kids dripping wet, wearing shorts and looking scruffy in the middle of winter? Very weird. The guy up front rang the police as the boys slipped back out into the cold night and made a beeline for the beach, followed the shoreline back to the canoe as a siren whooped alarm up on the highway. They got back in the canoe, pushed off, and put their backs into it. They made Rye the next morning, racked the canoe, returned the paddles, and beat it home, where the young man slept for two whole days, back in 1926.
* * * * *
His father, Herbert Brown, had been a great athlete at Columbia College; a statue of him still stands in the lobby, the institution’s greatest all-around athlete. In the early 1900s he formed a Wall Street brokerage with his brother — Brown Brothers. But the athlete’s lungs were no match for the smoke-filled dens of capitalism; Herbert contracted tuberculosis.
“The only chance in those days was to get in the dry place,” Woody said, “so he went out to Arizona, and then he died all alone out there, which is very sad. Boy, I’ll tell ya, life is filled with tragedy, isn’t it?”
Woody was about five at the time; his mother, Eva Farrell Brown, took it hard, turned to drinking. “We’d hide the bottle from her, all this kind of stuff, but she was very good about it,” Woody remembered. “She’d go in her room and close the door and be just like knocked out for 24 hours or so. She wouldn’t raise hell or anything like that, but it was sad. Well, I understand it; I lost two of ’em [spouses]. I know what it is!”
After the war ended in 1919, the custom was to let rooms to returning soldiers, and a young man named Sydney Gaskins — “Gas” for short — came to live with them, and eventually Eva married him, which was fortunate because Herbert’s brother defrauded the family out of its share of the brokerage business.
It was a most unusual household. Woody’s grandmother, Sue Farrell, was a social activist. “She started that anti-vivisection investigation league,” Woody told me. “She got laws passed before Congress to keep doctors from experimenting on live animals. You see, that hurt her — she was a lovely, kind person, and she was vegetarian; my mother was not. So I had the balance of the two.”
Woody had no appreciation for social hierarchies or wealth or status. He disliked his school, the spoiled-rotten rich kids that barged through life without self-awareness, the soulless urban competition to get ahead. “I hated cities,” he said. “I loved the trees and the ocean, the clouds … I loved nature!”
Then Woody told a story: “They sent me up to the country for the summer, to a friend’s way up above New York. Well, they had a shotgun, see? And I’d never seen a gun before in my life, y’know. So I said, ‘Jeeze, can I go use the gun?’ They said, ‘Sure, but be careful; it’s dangerous, you can get hurt.’ I mean, I’d never seen a gun, but they explained it to me. So I went out in the fields and bushes — ‘Ah! Gonna go hunt!’ — and so this chipmunk came up above his hole lookin’ around, and I got a bead on him, and BOOM! I got him! And I run over there, and I’ve blown his guts out all over the ground, see? But the poor little guy was lookin’ up at me with his little beady eyes — I still see it! [Woody choked up] — and he’s lookin’ up at me like I’m God, sayin’, ‘Well what are you gonna do now?’ Well, I can’t leave him there like that, and I had to shoot him right in the face, while he’s lookin’ up at me with those little eyes. Man, I never killed anything after that! That was it, man! Oh! I can still see it, y’know? Terrible! So that’s how I became a vegetarian — completely!”
“As a young kid I was different than most people in that I didn’t associate with gangs of boys and whatnot. I was a loner, sort of a freak kid,” Woody explained. “I wanted to know why I was here, what I’m supposed to do now that I’m here, what the hell is the world here for, and who is God. My father was an agnostic, he didn’t believe in God, so I was raised more or less like an atheist, and everybody else was talkin’ about God, so I wanted to know, well, who IS God? Well, nobody can answer that question. They just say, ‘Oh, he’s the creator, but you’ve gotta just believe — faith. Nobody knows who God is.’ Well, this bugged me, that I couldn’t get any answers from anybody, and I thought, ‘Well, dammit, then we don’t know nothin’!’ and that kinda killed my fright as a young kid. So nature helped me — or the Lord helped me, whatever you want to say — in that I turned to a love of flying. It fascinated me to get up off the ground, away from from everybody and all their heckling and fighting and arguing, and so I became just absolutely phenomenally interested in flying.”
He read everything on the subject he could get ahold of, built models and flew them, and, being an adventurous 15-year-old, determined to experience flight first-hand. He quit school and went out to Curtis Field on Long Island, where he made himself useful, slept nights on the concrete hanger floor, met Lindbergh, Wiley Post, Clarence Chamberlain, and other great aviators, and learned how to fly.
“One man there, he had a Jenny, and he was teaching people for a reasonable price. I talked my family into giving me enough money to take lessons, which of course they didn’t want because flying was so dangerous in those days. Every flight was an experiment; you didn’t know what was gonna happen. But that was romantic and wonderful, you see. I loved it!”
By the time he was in his early 20s, Woody rarely went into the city, but fate has a way of getting us to the right place at the right time. “I didn’t go to parties or anything, but some of my friends talked me into going to one — because we still had all these rich connections — so this party was a lot of those kinds of people there, and this one rich girl, she liked me for some reason, and so she made a big show there, to get me, and this other English girl, she saw this girl doin’ that, and it made her kinda mad, see, so she made a play for me, just to spite the girl with all that money. And so after the party, she said, ‘Well, come on down to my place,’ and so I went down there. Well, one thing leads to another, and first thing you know we were gettin’ along fine.”
Betty Sellon’s father was an underwriter of Lloyd’s of London — “The greatest insurance company in the world, was using him to back them up! Can you imagine?” — with lots of money and homes in England, America, India and elsewhere. He was a Theosophist, a student of Madam H. P. Blavatsky’s Perennial Philosophy of God’s pervasive presence in the universe. While not agnosticism, it stood almost as far from the popular religions. “I studied Theosophy,” Woody told me, “but it didn’t make much more sense than religions did. I was an out-of-door person, and I couldn’t be bothered with that.”
It was customary for Mr. Sellon to take his family on a protracted summer jaunt to some wonderful place like Bermuda. But that year — 1934 — it was a motorcar trip to Nova Scotia, and Betty’s new bo was invited. One afternoon up there, Woody spotted a man with a strange contraption out in a field. Turned out it was a glider from a German expedition to Newfoundland some years before. Woody got to talking with the man (“a farmer — nice, friendly, country-type people”), mentioning he was a flyer himself, and next thing you know he was being towed up into the air.
“Of course, I’d always been interested in gliders rather than airplanes,” Woody told me, “because to me that was more with nature, see what I mean? The motor was just a big, roaring, damn stinky thing, and here you could fly without it. Oh boy! This was one of the old ‘primaries’ — just a frame, and you sat of a seat right in the middle of the air!”
Turned out the farmer had a better glider in his barn that he’d be willing to part with if the price was right. “He took me over there, and here was this beautiful glider that was what we call a secondary; it had the boom tail and all, but it had a little streamlined pod that you sat in, and nice wings, y’know. It was a refined glider. So I said, ‘Do you wanna sell that one?’ He said, ‘Oh yeah, but I’ve gotta get a little money for this one because this is a nice one.’” Woody pointed out that the main support between the seat and the wing had been damaged and jury-rigged together. “We bargained, but we finally agreed. He said, ‘All right, but it’s gonna cost you a little money. It’s gonna cost you 25 dollars!’” Woody laughed hysterically. “Can you imagine that? So I went home and built a trailer and went clear back up there, a thousand miles, and brought it back.”
In Rye, Woody fixed the glider, designing an improved pod fuselage for it. Then he and Betty got married; they were naturals for each other. “She didn’t like society and big shops and all that kinda stuff. She hated that, same as me.” He’d been spoiled by a trip to Florida the winter before. “I left that cold snow and went down there, and here were the sunshine and bathing trunks, and I thought, ‘Boy, what am I doin’ livin’ up there in New York?’ So when my wife said, ‘Let’s get out of here,’ we took off and went to California to live.”
They hitched the glider to the back of a Chrysler Airflow**** he’d purchased with a small inheritance and headed west, driving cross-country in the midst of a gas war — 15 cents a gallon — making a beeline for La Jolla, where a relative rented them an apartment. They set up house and walked down to the beach, and there were these waves, like nothing Woody’d seen before. In a stroke of primal intuition, he got stuck on the idea of building a vehicle to ride them — at first a spruce plank, then the hollow plywood box, and then the Snowshoe. When his friend Towny Cromwell saw it, he had to have one too, so Woody helped him build it.
“We just laid down riding,” Wood said. “It never occurred to us to stand up, and then one day Towny said, ‘Hey! You know, in Hawaii they stand up!’ And I said, ‘Well, what do they do that for?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know.’ But, so, we started standing up too!” He laughed a big laugh. “Life is amazing, isn’t it? He worked for Scripps in La Jolla; they named the Cromwell Current after him. A humble, nice boy, not arrogant. He was killed in a plane crash in Mexico — so sad.”
Betty and Woody both had small incomes from their respective fathers, “so between the two we were doin’ all right. We weren’t millionaires, but if we were careful we could rent a house and have food and, you know what I mean. In other words, we were the richest people in the WORLD! Right? Not too much, but a little bit — that’s the deal.”
* * * * *
Woody told me about Torrey Pines, the high bluff area just north of La Jolla and Scripps Institute. “When I came over there from New York, the boys were flying gliders down on the beach. The air would hit these cliffs and you could glide along like an inverted waterfall. Well, the trouble was that when the big storms would come, which was the best wind for soaring, it would bring the high tides and the big waves, so we couldn’t go down the beach with a car, so we would miss all the soaring. So I told the boys, I said, “Hey, why don’t we find a place up on top of the cliff, where we can just launch off the cliff no matter what the conditions are? So I got permission from the city, and I got a lease on some land up there, and I built a runway and dragged it myself from the car with a railroad tie, so then we had a nice little airport up there.”
Launching off the bluff presented unique problems, however. “At first I’d shot-cord off like the Germans with huge rubber bands you’d stretch out with a car, but that was a dangerous thing because if anything happened, you’re running down to the edge of the cliff, and if you don’t have enough speed, you’re gonna just fall off the edge. My wife was towing me one time up in a big rain, and it was muddy and the wheels were spinning and she didn’t get the power, and when I got toward the end, I pulled the joy stick back to take off, and nothing happened, and here was the edge looming right up and I’m doin’ about 35 miles an hour, so I just did what you call a ground loop — I stuck the wing tips in the ground and kicked full rudder and the glider turned around there, but when it stopped my tail and one wing were sticking over and I couldn’t even get out of the cockpit. So we decided that wasn’t too safe a way of doin’ it.”
He had a couple of close calls out in the foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains at a place discovered by Hawley Bowlus. First, a wealthy fellow had bought an untralight glider and wanted Woody’s help figuring out how the new-fangled Kolsman instrument worked. “We told him not to fly his glider out there; it wasn’t built for that, and we wouldn’t help him put it together. But he flew the glider there a couple times, and then he said, ‘Woody, would you just go up with me once to show me how to run this instrument?’ So like a damn fool, I go.” Rising some 200 feet on the tow line, Woody directed him: “‘That’s a thermal, see? It’s lifting this way, so you turn left ’cause the updraft is over there on the left,’ and I said ‘Turn, turn!’ and he couldn’t do it. He said, ‘I’m sorry, Woody, I can’t. The wings have come off!’ He was so polite.” Woody laughed hysterically. “He’s apologizing to me — no wings! So we came down 200 feet with no wings, broke his legs and arms and knocked me out for 8 hours with a brain concussion, but, oh boy, were we lucky.”
Another time he had a mid-air collision with another glider. “I took his wing right off, and it just turned him around. I got back down on the landing field, and his ship was all rolled up in a great big ball of sticks, and I got there, and I look in the sticks — there was a seat but nobody in it! And I thought, ‘Oh God no! The poor guy! He must’ve been knocked out of the ship up in the air, and he’s gone!’ But he did the same thing — he had run around and there was my ship with the nose knocked off and the seat there with nobody in it, and he thought, ‘Oh God, he must’ve been knocked out of the plane!’ We were just lucky on that one too!”
* * * * *
In the late 1930s, in La Jolla, Woody developed a severe abscess of the inner ear, and emergency surgery was required.
“So I had to go and get an operation, and they used chloroform in those days, which is pretty rough. They knocked me out — big! — and when they knocked me out, I rose up from my body — I could see my body laying down there in the bed. I could see the doctors, and I could hear every word they said, and I could look right through the wall and see the nurses preparing the medicine to bring in to the doctor. The wall was no obstruction at all! And then I went right through the walls — cement and concrete and steel — and I went down where my wife and her mother were sitting in the other part of the hospital down there — I didn’t even know where they were, but I went right to them, and I sat there with ’em, and of course they couldn’t see me or hear me, but I heard every word they said, see? So after I came back in my body — through the walls and all — here they were, workin’ on me, and I came back with fire in my ear. Later I told my wife, I said, ‘You and your mother were saying this and that, and you said this, and your mother said that.’ Now what’s science got to say about that? I was there, wasn’t I?”
* * * * *
“Surfing is good because it gets all the boys away from the street corners telling dirty stories! Y’know what I mean?” Woody asked me, and I nod. It’s the next morning, and we’re back on his sofa, and Kahului harbor is still flat. “It gets ’em all with nature! And it’s a clean, healthy sport that builds your body, so I think it’s a very fine thing. It saved my life a couple times.”
It was in Wichita Falls, Texas in 1939. “The conditions were so wonderful,” Woody remembered. “There was a low pressure from the Gulf, tremendous lift in those storm conditions. When I got up there, there was this cloud street — the clouds were lined up in a row, and you can barrel along under them. I rode that cloud street for hours.” He set world and national altitude and distance records — 7,500 feet and 263 miles. The hardest part, he told me, was afterwards, being pushed out on stage in front of the waiting crowd to receive his applause.
Then he raced home to San Diego, where Betty died in childbirth. “When my wife died, I cracked up. I stood it for a year, and then I couldn’t take it anymore, and I told the Lord (of course, I didn’t believe in God, but we all know there’s something greater than us, but I couldn’t accept man’s idea of God), I told the Lord, ‘I can’t take it any more; you gotta get rid of me — just wipe me out, I don’t wanna live any longer.’ So he said, ‘Why don’t you go to the South Seas? You always wanted to go down there. Go!’ Hey, man, I was on the boat the next day! I don’t know what happened to my car, the house full of clothes, everything; I don’t know what happened to any of it. I was gone. So I came to Hawaii here, and they wouldn’t let me get out of the country, so I was stuck here in Hawaii. I couldn’t sleep at night — all night, every night. I’d roam the street. So what I did, I just went out surfing all day, and by the end of the day and it’s gettin’ dark, I’m so exhausted I could fall asleep. So in a way it saved my life.”
* * * * *
Woody talked about surfing in Hawaii in the early 1940s: “When I came to Hawaii, there was a clique of boys that used to go out in big waves. There was only about four or five of ’em that would go out there in these tremendous 20- and 25-foot waves. None of the beachboys would go out there. But I had been riding big waves in La Jolla — we’d gotten up to about 15 feet — so I just automatically joined with these boys, and they took me in.” They nick-named him “Spider” because, “I surf with my arms all out, and I’m half squatting down, and I’m skinny with my long legs, and I guess I look like a big spider riding the board.”
This was the Hot Curl crew, and Woody described how John Kelly had whittled down his slide-ass swastika-style board to a 3-inch vee-tail. “Well, they had evolved the board, and of course I shaped my boards like that, with them there. The only difference was, I could build faster boards to get across those big waves because of my glider-flying experience. In other words, I understood how air flowed around things, and then I read how water is incompressible, so therefore it would have to follow the curve, whereas in an airplane, if the curve gets too steep, the air just breaks away in turbulence if it can’t follow the curve, but in water, because it’s incompressible, the water has to follow the curve, and that’s why, when he rounded the back end, it couldn’t go down sideways, because the water couldn’t go around that curved stern that fast. So I understood all that from my flying, that any kind of curve in the water is gonna slow the board down because the water has a hard time getting around that curve, so I could make my boards much faster, and I could get across these great big waves when nobody else could.”
Woody experimented with eliminating all the curves in the bottom, but that brought things back to the slide-ass problem of the old boards. “So we figured, well, if we put a fin on it, perhaps we could have the flat bottom with no curves for the speed, and yet it wouldn’t slide ass. So we built one that way — Georgie [Downing] and I — and we took it out to Makaha, and Georgie tried it without a keel first to see the difference, because we’d made a slot for the fin, and we could slide it fore and aft, so we could learn something. Okay, so he went out and tried the board without the keel, and he said, ‘Oh Woody, it’s fantastic! It’s much faster than our other boards.’ But then he put the keel in and went out again, and when he came back in, he said, ‘Oh Woody! It’s MUCH better with the keel! It gives it even more speed, because it keeps it from sliding sideways a bit,’ and he said, ‘much better control and everything.’ So that was the beginning of the modern board, and we began building ’em like that. Then I could build ’em with NO curves except up on the sides to hold it in the wave, but as far as the back end was concerned, it was absolutely an out-and-out planing board.” This was in 1953.
* * * * *
Ten years earlier, December 22, 1943. The world is at war. Woody Brown and a kid named Dickie Cross go surfing at Sunset Beach.
“We were building our own surfboards then, and this guy from California left me his board — he was with the Navy, a big, heavy guy over 200 pounds, and the Navy pushed him so damn hard, it literally ran him down and killed him — so I had this big, tremendous board — 12 feet long, it must’ve weighed a hundred pounds — so I whittled it all down, got rid of that redwood on the sides as much as I could, and when I went out with Dickie, that’s the board I had. So the board was cut way down. That’s why when Dickie lost his board, I thought, ‘Oh my God! Two of us on this little cut-down board,’ and I could hardly paddle it. I’d cut it down a little too much, and kneelin’ on it, I had to keep paddling fast or it would sink, so I thought, ‘Oh man.’ But it turned out we didn’t have any board!”
He laughed, remembering that evening. The waves were giant. They’d paddled all the way down to Waimea Bay, and now Dickie was way inside, had lost his board off the rocky point, and Woody had committed to go in after him. Just then an outside set blackened the horizon. The last image he had of Cross was the look of wide-eyed surprise and dread on the man’s face, seeing his approaching doom, then Woody pushed his board away and dove for the bottom. It was dark when he finally crawled ashore at Waimea.
It occurs to me that the lean old man sitting next to me — with sun-weathered skin, piercing blue eyes, the shock of white hair, and a near-perpetual and almost toothless smile — is very likely what some would call a transcendent being. Since I’m not exactly an expert in transcendent beings (although I’ve been in the company of a few people who claimed to be such blessed individuals), I can’t be sure. But who more likely? The arc of this man’s life — his path — seems to have dragged him, kicking and screaming, straight into the arms of revelation. Two falls from the sky, a dozen or so near-death experiences here or there, encounters with the paranormal and/or astral planes, the powerful loss of a soulmate, miraculous survivals against great odds, and finally, as a 40 year-old agnostic, Woody Brown experienced contact. When he told me about it, and when he did, it was like hearing the other shoe drop. It all made sense.
After the war, Woody returned to Waikiki Beach and created the first modern catamaran based on the asymmetrical-hulls concept by the ancient Polynesians. He partnered up with a young Hawaiian, Alfred Kumalae, who was all set to head down to Hilo with his boat-building partner, Rudy Choy, to work on a conventional keelboat. But Woody’s project intrigued Kumalae, and he begged off the Choy job to join Woody in researching Polynesian multihulls at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum,then build the prototypes and the first catamaran.
Wood said: “When he came here and discovered the islands, Capt. Cook said, ‘They built fine canoes, but of course they were all bent out of shape.’ When I read The Canoes of Oceana, I saw that the catamarans were asymmetric; really, they were hydrofoils in the water, and Cook didn’t even understand what a hydrofoil was, and then he called ’em dumb savages!” Woody laughed and slapped his legs. “Isn’t that amazing? We’re so arrogant — the human race, especially the white man, y’know?
Woody and Alfred first built a 3-foot model of their catamaran, then a 16-foot version they could sail and test. It worked beautifully, so they set out to build a 38-foot version, working right across the road from Waikiki Beach on an empty lot owned by a wealthy man named Tenny. The Manu Kai (Sea Bird) was framed in wood, sheathed in plywood, and covered with fiberglass. By current standards, she was ultralight.
“When we launched it [in 1947], we had 20 beachboys pick it up and carry it across the road and down to the water — this 38-foot boat!”
Woody Brown was in love with flight, and now he was flying on water — after all, one was so much like the other. “The only difference,” he told me, “is that water isn’t compressible, so it has to follow around the curve no matter how steep it is, and that’s what they call a hull speed on the boat — if the curve on the boat is too great, it can only go through the water just so fast. So I made my catamarans just l-o-n-g and slender. The regular boats are 2 to 1 or 3 to 1, width to length. Mine was 20 to 1, so my hull speed is almost unlimited. I could do 40 miles an hour, and the other boats could do 5 or 6! So I would fly by ’em, which doesn’t make ’em very happy, since they spent a lot of money to get that yacht!”
Everybody wanted a ride on the new cat, and that was good news for Woody and his struggling family (he and Ma Brown had two kids by then). “I worked with the catamaran five years,” he told me. “It was beautiful! I make my living makin’ people happy — what more wonderful way of life can you live than that? I’d take ’em out and give ’em these thrill rides on this 38-foot catamaran, and we’d catch ocean swells and fly down the slope — no other boat in the world could do that, y’know? And the people would whoop and holler — AAIIIEEEE! WOOOHOOO! And they’d tell us, ‘Woody, that’s the greatest thing we’ve done in Hawaii!’ They were mostly rich tourists, and they’d come back three, four times, ride on my catamaran at $3, $3.50 for a one-hour ride. So I could make a living, see?”
But, inevitably, man’s baser instincts came into play. As Kumalae and Choy teamed up with Warren Seaman and moved on to fame and fortune as C/S/K Catamarans, competition came to the beach. When the beachboys and some other regulars saw Woody making a living, they wanted a shot at the lucrative tourist market too. “I understood everyone has to make his living,” Woody said. “I didn’t object to that. In fact, I helped them to get their catamaran and build it, but then they got mean and nasty, like all humans.” There were price wars, threats, even guys warning Woody’s customers not to go with him — his boat was too dangerous! “Finally I told my wife, I can’t take this shit anymore; I don’t need this kind of life. That’s how I bought the farm up here in Kula and started farming.”
* * * * *
The area called Kula is on the west slope of Haleakala. At the 4,000-foot level where Woody and Rachel bought a small farm, there is a commanding view of the narrow neck of Maui, from Kahului on the North shore to Maalaea on the south. Back in the early 1950s, Woody had the best waves all to himself.
“When I came here, there was one surfing place — Ho’okipa, and the city had built lockers for the boys there, and they rode just way up in the corner there where the waves don’t get too big, by the pavilion. But I liked to ride big waves, and I had a board that could ride the big waves.”
The locals had hollow Blake-style boards or the old slide-ass swastika, “so they never rode big waves; their deal was 7 or 8 feet, pau, that was the end, but I liked the 10, 15, 20-foot waves. But this one boy, Donald Chimura, he was kind of interested in my board, and so I helped him build one like it, and we went all around the island here finding new places — Honolua and Maalaea and all over — and he and I were the only ones that would go out in these big waves.”
Meanwhile, he was truck farming in Kula, working the land, growing vegetables — cabbage, carrots, string beans, tomatoes — driving them to market, making 40 bucks a month, sometimes more, and going surfing when the swell was up. And then he told me the story:
“I was still riding big waves, so one day I was out there in my yard working on my surfboard,” he began. “Now, you won’t believe all this, boy!” and he laughed, then continued. “So, I’m workin’ up there, quiet, there wasn’t another house for a mile around; you could hear a pin drop, see. So I’m workin’ the surfboard, and all of a sudden this voice says, ‘What’re you doin’?’ And it kind of startled me because nobody around, but …” and he slaps his thighs for emphasis, because he knows how this sounds … “I just say, ‘Whoa, I’m just workin’ on my surfboard.’ I mean, it was said in such a nice way, just like some guy standing there who really wanted to know. So, a couple of minutes more, then it said, ‘What for?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m making it faster, so I can get across these great big waves.’ And then it blew my mind, see? Then it said, ‘But you can’t take it with you when you go.’ Who-who-whooooo!” Woody was laughing with the shock and thrill, remembering.
“That just BLEW my mind out! Because I don’t believe in God — I believe in this world here, and the flying and the surfing. But now he’s blown my mind, and I said, ‘Well, what can you take with you when you go?’ And the awful answer was, ‘Nothing!’” And then Woody was laughing again. “That blew my mind totally. So I said, ‘Well, then this world is a damn lie and a deception! It has no real meaning at all! What good is it if you can’t take anything with you?’ And so I was blown out, you see? I SAW you can’t take it with you when you go.”
Woody’s life changed from that moment on. Suddenly he had no faith in anything. He thought he was going to die, literally, then, “Wait a minute!,” he realized, “I can’t die; I’ve got a beautiful wife and two children — it’s my fault — I created them!” He searched his mind, considering the great men of history — Buddha, Jesus, Confucius, even Einstein — and finally came to rest on Jesus, who died to save us, said “turn the other cheek,” and “love and forgive your enemy.” He was led, he told me, to understand that Satan was the power of our “separate” thought, which kept us from understanding God, who sees everything in wholeness. What Woody came to know, understand, and finally, fully experience is that, “God is love.”
“That’s what Jesus told them on the Mount,” Woody explained, “love and forgive your neighbor. Nobody will do it. The Church doesn’t do it. So, in other words, nobody will do it. I DID IT, you see? Maybe I’m a fruit, but that’s beside the point. I DID IT.”
Further communications followed — not merely voices but large letters that, hearing it from Woody, reminded me of the HOLLYWOOD sign, proclaiming further mind-blowing and divine facts to Woody: “There was no such thing as good and evil! Because Love takes the place of all these things. Love for ALL and every single one. Yeah! Then I thought, this Love must be God. It’s simple as that. Because if we all loved each other, it’d be paradise right here, wouldn’t it? You would have 4 billion people lookin’ our for you! What would you have to look out for yourself for? It made good sense.”
* * * * *
Woody drifted back and forth between Maui and O’ahu over the next 20 years, working in the catamaran business as a builder, owner-operator, and hired captain. He still surfed some big waves (although the Dickie Cross experience scared him for quite awhile) and was one of the surfers on that big Makaha wave, which caused such a sensation when it hit the mainland papers in 1953.
Along about 1971, Woody told me, he hooked up with an airline pilot who said the government was selling surplus training gliders for $800, so they bought one together and had it shipped over to Mokulei’a, on O’ahu, where Woody rebuilt it to “modern” standards and returned to the skywaves for a last fling.
“Well,” he told me, “you’re not supposed to go over 12,000 feet without oxygen, but I went up to 20 — with no trouble! I’d be up there for five or six hours at 20,000 feet, and you’re not supposed to be able to do that. But one day I got in a wave that took me up above 20,000. In fact, it was so damn strong — it was a double wave, back on the ridge behind, and the fetch between the two [ridges] was just right, so that one wave built the other one up behind it, and, boy, I went up through 20,000 feet so fast, and when I got to 21 thousand, I began to get the warning — I mean, the instrument board got fuzzy, and I realized what was happening, and I said, ‘Hey, I gotta get down now!’ Well, I couldn’t get down! The lift was so strong that I was diving with the spoiler open and everything, and I wasn’t comin’ down, I was still goin’ up! I got to about 22 thousand before I could get out of the wave, but I got down okay.”
* * * * *
Ninety years isn’t a long time in the history of the world, but it’s a long life for a man, and Woody’s has been fuller than most, full of the kinds of things that define what it is to be human, but I doubt he would have become the man he’s become if he hadn’t been a surfer. Woody’s life deserves a book, a big book So much of what he told me is fascinating and deserves to be told: tales of the early days at La Jolla and San Onofre, his wanderings through Hawaii in the early 1940s, his developmental work on the catamaran and the subsequent “wars” at Waikiki, the Manu Kai’s record Trans-Pac crossing, his many solo sessions in big surf off Maui, his work with the elderly at the Hale Makua care facility in Kahului (biking up the road to work at age 87!), his eventual reunion with his first son, Jeffrey Sellon, and on and on.
“Woody Brown is a combination of Howard Roarke from The Fountainhead and Forrest Gump,” Ben Marcus told me recently. “He’s the guy that’s always kind of on the fringe of history, from washing Charles Lindbergh’s plane to being one of the guys in that Makaha photo. He’s there and he’s very influential, but he just doesn’t care about fame. He just likes to do things right. But he’s very Forrest Gump; I mean, look at the times he moved through. He’s interesting.” He’s more than interesting, though. He’s the true spirit of surfing.
“Hobie came for a ride on my catamaran, and he liked it so much, he said, ‘I wanna build one, Woody!’ and I said, ‘Fine, go ahead!’ He went and did it, and he made a fortune! But I wasn’t interested in makin’ money. I was a freak all my life, you see? The Lord kept me away. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been kept away from people. I didn’t go to parties and get drunk; I’m stupid enough already, why would I want to get more stupid for? So I was a loner. I didn’t get involved in the good-and-evil deal, trying to beat the other guy and be better than everybody. I was just interested in nature, and nature doesn’t do those things. Nature has certain laws, and as long as you understand those laws, why you get along fine, and you can do things that other people can’t do, because they don’t understand nature, see? That’s how I could make all these records in boats and airplanes and surfboards — because I understood nature, and I worked with it. Now, there’s no jealousy, there’s no hate, there’s no good and evil, there’s no ‘me better than you’ and all that — I just kept away from all that. And if you look back on my life, you can see how the Lord was setting me up for this, writing these books, like The Gospel of Love.”
* * * * *
That’s Woody’s work now — writing down what comes to him from a God that requires unconditional love for all. And that’s Woody’s work too — living those words.
* * * * *
One summer many years ago, when the surf was flat on the north side, Woody found a good little spot out by Lahaina near a place called Laniupoko. “I guess I didn’t want to fight the whitewater all the time, so I found this place that had a deep hole inside, so when you lost your board, it didn’t go up on the rocks. And not only that, but there was a little channel between the surfs to go out where it didn’t break unless it was tremendous. So that was neat; I loved that. They called it Woody Surf because I was the only one that’d go out there.” He cleared a path through the rocks to the waves, and he made it a matter of some ritual to clear that cleft of white sand when he returned each summer.
In January of this year, I watched Woody secure his leash around his waist and walk his board through this path. Then he smoothy hopped into a knee-paddling position and stroked out to the peak, where he rode wave after wave, looking fluid, controlled, and thoroughly at home.
We talk about our heroes, but a hero (though quasi-divine according to the Greeks, who came up with the term) is a dead man, and Woody Brown is not a dead man. Far from it. He’s got more life in him — has lived more and done more and carries more — than just about anyone I’ve ever met.
Now almost 90, Woody tells me, “I think death is a great and wonderful thing to look forward to.”
And I remind him of what Bob Dylan wrote: “Just remember … that death is not the end.”
* Note: In Paul A.Schweizer’s 1988 book, Wings Like Eagles, The Story of Soaring, Woody Brown is cited for setting a national distance record of 280 miles at the 1939 Southwest Soaring Contest. Woody’s Bowlus kit sailplane was called the B-100 Baby Albatross; Thunderbird was Woody’s “pet name” for the glider.
** The first “European” attempt at a multihull was a crude 30′ catamaran designed and built by Sir William Petty and launched in Dublin on September 22, 1662. Dubbed Simon & Jude, King Charles II instructed she be renamed The Experiment. With her twin cylindrical hulls, she beat all comers in a race organized by the Royal Society. in 1876, Nathanael Herreshoff beat the entire fleet with his 25’ catamaran Amaryllis at the New York Yacht Club’s Centennial Regatta and was promptly banned from future races. In 1937, Eric de Bisschop, a French explorer and ocean sailor, built the forerunner of the modern catamaran (a 35′ double canoe) on Waikiki Beach; he named the craft Kaimiloa and sailed her around the world and back to France, an epic voyage of 264 days.
*** If you found Woody’s photo album, please return it — no questions asked! Contact LongBoard for routing instructions.
**** Woody’s choice of automobiles was in line with his passion for aircraft. Carl Breer, chief engineer for Chrysler’s Airflow, tested various automobile shapes in wind tunnels in an attempt to reverse the lift effect of an aircraft wing, pressing the vehicle more firmly against the road for more stability as its speed increased. A 1934 ad for the Airflow stated: “You have only to look at a dolphin, a gull, or a greyhound to appreciate the rightness of the tapering, flowing contour of the new Airflow Chrysler. By scientific experiment, Chrysler engineers have simply verified and adapted a natural fundamental law.” Unfortunately for Chrysler, the Airflow was not a success. First car with an aerodynamic body to be put into large scale production, with its 8-cylinder, 125-bhp engine and a maximum speed of 147 km/h, even in 1934 the car cost upwards of $5,000.
***** The Gospel of Love: A Revelation of the Second Coming by Woodbridge Parker Brown with Dorothy Esson Stockman, Courier Publishers, Honolulu, 1980. Note: Woody only has a handful left, but send a note to LongBoard if you’re interested in a copy, and if he gets enough requests, perhaps he’ll do a reprint. As he says, “God has to grow.”
© Drew Kampion, 2001